Our yard is full of construction materials and a staff of builders. We have finally plunged into the Mexican construction system. We’ve owned this lot for six years and ever since we bought it we’ve wrestled with the next big step. Build or permanently live in our gNash? If we build, how? Wood or concrete? Rammed earth? Prefab panels? It’s obvious we’d prefer wood since we could do it ourselves and we’d be in total control. The termites would prefer we build with wood, too. Or so most people think. We thought we’d solved the wood dilemma with an anti-termite treatment in our rumpus room. And we have. There’s no termites eating our treated rumpus room but someone wisely pointed out that if we wanted to be able to sell this place most people would be suspicious of wood. Termite bias is reasonable and most likely insurmountable in future buyers. Also, hurricanes. Concrete houses withstand hurricanes and we have hurricanes. With climate change we’re going to have more and stronger hurricanes.
So finally having decided to build meant we had reached the conclusion that we had to build with concrete block. Block is the local preference. There are many competent building crews to choose from here. Block is also less expensive than modular panels and rammed earth. Rammed earth is gorgeous but slow and very, very expensive. And it’s hard to remodel the interior. Concrete is easy to patch. Late last year we started getting estimates but really we wanted one crew, a team of guys whose work we’d seen and who we knew to be great workers. But that team had a boss and regular jobs working for their boss. We did not need the boss and we certainly didn’t want to pay the boss. Between Burt and I we can build a house in concrete and in Spanish. There was no need to pay money for the middle man. So we resigned ourselves to working with some other group but didn’t settle on anyone.
Over the summer we played with floor plans. Independently Burt and I realized an L shaped home would be best for our lot. The L would provide a secluded shady patio and allow us to cram in more floor space without crushing some nice cactii. When we arrived this year Burt noticed the guys we wanted were not particularly busy. So he asked them if they were available for some independent work. We got lucky. Things were slow and the dream team wanted to work for us and they got their boss to agree. The Magic 8 Ball revealed: All signs say YES. So we leapt on the chance to get our casita built by this team of quick and reliable builders. And here we are. The yard is a disaster. Rain fell into the mess yesterday so it’s an even worse situation than we could have imagined. But the workers persist. And the house is flying up while money flies out.
More later on construction techniques and the work culture.
Despite feeling like a pair of musical mushrooms we got our proverbial act together and played a gig. A couple of weeks ago we were enjoying a nice dinner out with Sara Gay and my dad at a small place called Amor D’Vino in Todos Santos. The place has great food and a vast wine selection and it was only us for dinner. I realized right away we might be able to fill a three table restaurant. Win win. We’d feel good for filling a place and they’d feel good to have a full place. Nice dinner and wine for us. Too bad we had’t gigged regularly in a long while. Time to get to work. So we did. Burt and I reformed our duo by mutual agreement and got together and practiced. It went very well. Fourteen people filled three tables and we all sang some songs. Reviews were positive, the tips generous, and the food tasty. No mics either so it was a super easy set-up.
We’re on a roll. On the 19th we’ve got a private party and then there’s a Valentine’s Day show somewhere and the end of February we’ll be strumming and singing in the Galapagos. The Gypsy Carpenters ride again.
We ended 2018 participating in a healthy 5k fundraiser event. La gripa whittled down our numbers to a manageable eight children and two adults. Last year we recall having 14 people stuffed into our car to get to the race in Todos Santos. These kids are all growing as their supposed to and ever week it’s harder to fit them into the Exploder. While I’m sad we lost a few participants I’m a little grateful the cold came through town and did some pack reduction. Our wallets are grateful, too. This race is a fundraiser and it cost us over $100 for our group’s entry fees even with a kind man’s 30% subsidy. Thank you man-whose-name-I-forgot-to-get.
Overall the kids athletic performances were much stronger. Most of our pack finished in under and hour with sub 17 minute walking miles. Last year’s Queen Whiner, the one who swore she’d never come back, was among those strong walkers and had only good things to say this year. She was justifiably proud of her accomplishment. Then there were the stragglers: Burt and his group of wandering duckies. I was mid-Pescadero pack, halfway between our steady walkers with a dear Daniela, and Burt and his group. I could see our speedier kids and encourage Daniela but I could not see Burt. As I walked with Daniela, who could have been with the other kids if she had cared, I found myself in an age old familiar spot. If I walked behind Daniela she slowed down. If I walked with her she dropped back. If I walked ten feet in front of her and talked over my shoulder she could keep up. Since I wanted to keep an eye on the faster kids I psychically dragged Daniela while walking just ahead of her. Daniela is our silent muse. She was the very first kid to show up to our music/English classes 4 seasons ago on the steps of the Police station. Despite years of contact I can still hardly get her to speak. It was a long walk with me trying to get anything out of her but a yes or no. I tried not to take it personally.
Meanwhile across town, Burt was doing the same thing. If he slowed to the kid’s pace they’d never finish so he had to keep walking just ahead of them to keep them going. Still the race organizers sweep team missed them and cleared the course before they were done. What silliness. I was at the finish line saying please don’t pack up we’ve get a 7 year old and some other kids still out there and the sweepers were saying they must have quit. It was awkward. But I defended my kids. Burt had a phone and I knew he’d have called if there was a problem. They were just slow. Very slow. I persisted. I wanted them to be greeted by cheers and medals like everyone else. In fact the sweepers had passed them so early in the race they never realized they had missed a group of racers. An hour and oh, maybe twenty minutes, maybe thirty minutes after the start our ducklings came in with Burt scooting them forward every step of the last 100 yards. They were a meandering lot. The fastest line is the straight line was an unknown concept to them. And they were met with cameras and cheers and medals. Yay.
I had the kids, still wheezing and snotty nosed over just before Christmas. We decorated muñecas de nieve and pinos. That’s snowmen and christmas trees in English. We also made a few poinsettias. The poinsettia is called Noche Buena here or Christmas Eve. Since then we’ve been hanging low. Everyone has been sick but us and I feel it finally sneaking in. We have a gig in three days. Our first of the season. Burt and I have practiced the last three days. I can’t properly sing. It’s gonna be like the old, old days where Burt doe all the singing and I merrily strum along. If you’re in town and want a nice meal and a glass of wine check out Amor D’Vino at 6 on Thursday.
Today we plan to head into the hills and camp the night.
The last two years I met January with a commitment to write and post every day. I’m grateful many of you followed along. This year I am committing to NOTHING. I feel disconnected. We start construction of our home soon. That might be worth sharing the details as the block goes in. We shall see. I think we’re in for a long, dusty, slow process.
This year’s Todos Santos Christmas Bird count was an unprecedented success for our area. I hope in future years we’ll be able to look back and see it as the start of a new day for citizen science in our part of the world. Twenty people from three countries speaking at least two languages got together and split up over 170 square miles of terrain to count as many birds as they could in one day. The first three years of counting only uncovered 74, 66, 44 species respectively. We got 51 species with my team alone on CBC day. Our combined CBC circle teams tagged at least 109 species together. (An increase of 47% on the best year and 147% on the worst.) We don’t have the final numbers yet because only half our teams have submitted their completed tally sheets. Among those species seen were prized endemics found only in Baja California Sur: the San Lucas Robin, Xantu’s hummingbird, the Gray thrasher, Cassin’s (San Lucas) Vireo, the Vioscosa’s Band-tailed pigeon, and the Acorn woodpecker. Some people may quibble over endemic status for some of these but our Baja pride dictates we support the local UABCS scientists working so hard on the status of these birds. There were a couple other subspecies seen, too, but I can’t recall which right now.
I am eternally grateful to all the hard working bird professionals that came out to support the community effort. Staff and students of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur gave up a day of their holidays to ensure our success. Burt and I are will continue to do what we can to help your programs succeed. Many thanks also to the expert guides and non-professionals who lent their eyes and ears. Your love of the birds is inspiring. And finally, to the newbies that were eager to learn and offered any support they had with driving, navigating, and feeding of teams. May you continue to learn and share all you have. Here’s who turned out: Emer Garcia, Gerardo Marrón, Victor Armando, Joaquin Corrales, Daniel Galindo, Andrea Quintaro, Kurt Radamaker, Cindy Radamaker, Bequia Martel, Damian Gonzáles, Pablo Gonzáles, Bobbi McElravey, Bill Levine, John Konovsky, Don Martin, Alejandra Yarely Barrios, Osiel A. Flores Rosas, Haidé Cruz, Burt Mittelstadt and me.
The week before the count Burt and I drove a lot of miles to make sure we knew the most productive areas and the best routes through the mountains. The results show our prep work proved worthwhile. Many people were surprised the mountain endemics were in our circle but we knew where to find them and those sweet birds showed up on the big day. What a relief. Thank you woodpeckers and robins.
My own personal day was spent slogging through my home turf of downtown Pescadero. But before that I had to get everyone else split into teams and out in the field. That night my fitbit said I slept 3 hours. Adrenaline was pumping as soon as my head hit the pillow. Thoughts kept popping up: Did I have enough maps, cars, snacks? Will they find the snipe at the dam? What about those Harris’s hawks? Do I need to bring sunscreen and bug juice? What if nobody helps me in Pescadero? When was the last time I saw a gray thrasher? What if nobody shows up? The alarm went off at 5 AM and I was in Todos Santos at our meeting point at 6:45. Burt arrived 15 minutes later in a spare vehicle. By 7:15 it was obvious we had enough experts and support to cover all the areas I had hoped to reach. I showed the teams my suggestions and we split up the people into teams of experts and support. There was a mild squirmish over the mountain areas. Our main coastal oases were so familiar to the best birders that they hoped for a day in the new terrain. Burt wound up in a car with 5 people, all of them with strong local skills and two of them at the expert level. That A team headed to the mountains. We had six teams. Three coastal oasis and town with agricuture and desert, and three in the desert to the edge of the mountains with some agriculture.
As for me, I had two amiable and kind helpers the first three hours but the slogging through sewage ponds and desert thorns under an unrelenting sun burned my guys out by lunch time. after a quick count at my feeder and some lunch I finished the lonely afternoon chasing sparrows and birds of prey in our agricultural fields. Around 3 PM Emer called in to say his team was done and back in Todos Santos. They had done the Santa Inez dam and its environs. We agreed to regroup and have a snack with the teams that were in from the field in Todos Santos. I did a rough run through of total species seen. Aside from the endemics we added 12 species that weren’t even expected to be seen in our count during the CBC. I’ve got my work cut out for me explaining all the new birds.
After the snack groups went home to Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and La Paz. Kurt’s team was unaccounted for until 5 PM. They finally retired and headed to their hotel and Gerardo, Burt and I headed out to try and pick up some missing species and the night birds. Finally at 8 PM we showed Gerardo our guest bed and crashed. You might think the next day we would give it a rest but I had one of Baja’s best birders in my guest room and he was willing to bird my backyard and see what Pescadero had to offer so no, there was no rest for us. Burt and I took Gerardo to our local black water effluent and Gerardo got to work. He confirmed my find of the endangered Belding’s Yellowthroat in our local cesspool, but where I was lucky to see one, he found six. This bird is a difficult ID. It is easy to wishfully call a common yellow throat a Belding’s so I was eager to confirm I wasn’t seeing things. I am very relieved. Gerardo is our local eBird reviewer and the only person ahead of me for number of checklists submitted to eBird in 2018. I tease him because if I was here full-time we’d have a real competition. And so we spent another day birding in the company of the amiable and productive Gerardo. We went to Elias Calles and La Poza, too. At 3:00 we parted because Burt and I had a tennis match with my dad and Sara Gay. After that I collapsed.
A special shout out to Jackie Lewis and Bonnie Bowen for encouraging me and Todos Santos EcoAdventures for passing the baton.
Did you know in the late 1800s there was a Christmas tradition of the Christmas side hunt? Parties would divide up and head into the wood in a competition to see who could kill more things, feathered or furred. Charming. If you think we’ve evolved since then remember we still do this with coyotes and rattlesnakes and other ‘vermin’, just not as a Christmas tradition. In 1900 ornithologist Frank M. Chapman came up with a new idea. Frank said, “Hey, it’s getting kind hard to find all those animals. Maybe we should count them and see how many are left.” No, not really. What is true is that Chapman was justifiably concerned about the birds and he proposed the switch from killing to counting. That first count had 27 counters in 25 locations. They found 89 species. You can see the results HERE. I’ll bet a librarian deserves credit for us knowing those very first results. Conservation was a new idea and what is now known as the CBC or Christmas Bird Count is still going strong. Here’s a link to what the North American coverage looked like in 2014.
The CBC has grown and overtime developed standard protocols. The result is a powerful data set fueled by citizen scientists over the course of more than a century. The cumulative years of methodically counting have netted priceless scientific insight. Many conservation advances of teh past can be credited to the sound scientific conclusions from this long view of nature. Sadly, there’s a lot more work to be done. The rapid pace of climate change is outpacing nature’s ability to adapt. Using this data we can see population shifts in real time. Many species will not make it as food and precipitation cycles gyrate wildly. The NY Times just published a story on one special spot on our globe. You can read it HERE. We can relate to this anecdotal story of boobies and penguins and iguanas but the truth is this is a global disaster and it’s happening all around.
Despite the horrifying news we chose to move forward in hope and continue to collect data. It might only be an exercise in respect and acknowledgement as we consciously observe the destruction we have wrought but perhaps it will help provide answers on how to move forward. I don’t know but I’m going to go out and count.
So tomorrow is our big day. Birders from all over the area are coming here to lend a hand. Novices and experts will work together to take stock of our treasured birds. We meet at 7 AM at the Todos Santos Bus Station. I have maps and snacks. Bring your sunscreen, bug spray, binoculars, and hats.
Christmas Bird Count season is upon us. That’s something to celebrate. This is the 119th anniversary of the largest citizen science project in the world. It’s successful because humans all over agree to go out and focus their birding efforts in a tight circle on a scheduled date. The collective CBC circles cover an area and span of time to have produced the most important bird trend data in the world. Burt and I were lucky to have participated in a Portal, AZ count a few years ago. We followed our friend Peg Abbott of Naturalist Journeys as she birded her way up a mountain road over the course of a day. Peg explained the science of the CBC and shared her incredible bird identification skills while we spotted and kept count for her. We are hooked on birding in large part because people like Peg have generously spent time helping us learn the birds.
Yesterday Burt and I went to La Paz to help count in their amazingly diverse circle. They’ve got desert and agriculture and miles of shoreline and the open water of La Paz bay. Daniel Galindo-Espinosa is the compiler for La Paz and he welcomed our participation and has agreed to come to Todos Santos and help me out this week when we do ours. We were assigned to help our buddy Emer Garcia of the UABCS birding program at the city’s wastewater treatment plants. This might seem like a loser spot but it is actually one of the most important habitats in the Baja Sur region. I kind of hoped for a new area and new birds but I was relieved for two reasons. Emer is a pro and Burt and I had birded the area the day before so we knew what to expect. Still it was also kind of overwhelming. The volume of birds on the treatment lagoons can make you crazy when you’re desert rats like us. We are used to spotting birds as individuals. Counting entire flocks and picking out unique individuals inside of heavy flocks is tiring work. It takes practice. Our team of 5 set to it with Emer keeping us under control and we think we did a pretty good job. Our search revealed 59 species and over 1000 individuals. There was nearly 100 white-faced ibis alone. And the ducks. Holy quakery, Bat Man, there were a lot of ducks.
Meanwhile Burt and I have been driving roads to make sure we can get people out to the areas we want birded this Thursday. Today we are taking one last excursion to the border of the Sierra de la Laguna. I saw something I’m hesitant to report just yet so we’re going to try and find it again and also check out some other spots.
Join us Thursday at 7AM (12/20) if you’d like to participate in the Todos Santos Christmas Bird Count.
So Burt and I are getting into the swing of things. We’ve just plunged right in. Spanish, yoga, surfing, birding, kid’s classes, Bridge. Our schedules are packed full of fun and meaningful interactions so it’s not like we were looking for anything to do. The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is coming is these next three weeks. Birders all over the world work together to get an annual census. There are rigorous scientific protocols everyone agrees to follow. These protocols have given us 118 years of priceless data on birds. Todos Santos has had its own CBC for only 3 years. We’ve got some catching up to do. I noticed last week that I did not know when our CBC was planned so I contacted the organizers. There were a few emails back and forth where in summary I politely informed them that the answers they were giving me did not follow Audubon’s protocols. They very kindly said, “Will you take over for us?” I said, “Yes.” That old adage of no good deed goes unpunished comes to mind.
Now I am a scrambling to learn the formalities of running a circle and finding enough birders to cover our area. Luckily we know a bunch of the best and so far they are eager to get this thing underway with the new management. And by best I mean waaay wayyyy better than us best. So buh-bye. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Yesterday we thought we were going birding with a group of first year college students from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur and we did go birding but first Bon Jovi. I’m not a Bon Jovi fan but I am familiar with the band and it’s front man Jon Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi could be heard everywhere in my youth. We grew up at the same time in the same area of New Jersey in Italian American families. I can agree Bon Jovi is a big deal even if I have no interest in his body of work. My mother had a little Bon Jovi fever back in the late nineties. She and Jon’s mother lived in the same neighborhood. Mom once went to a Tupperware party with Jon’s mother so Jon and me, we’re practically related. Now we’ve had our photos taken on the same street in the same town in Baja. It’s become a tradition for Profe Emer to take his student groups to this spot and have their group photo taken. Bon Jovi was playing on the car stereo while we posed. I’m not sure if Bon Jovi is big in Mexico. The band is big with Emer. The Bon Jovi photo is the cover to the band’s album These Days. After yesterday’s big moment where we all stood in the street and smiled for the photo I looked it up. I wanted to know why Bon Jovi was in the remote town in Baja on a side street next to the grocery store. I found no answer. We were there because this small town is on the way to the day’s birding spot. Here’s a Mexican fan’s analysis. He’s irritated Bon Jovi makes no mention of the cover location or explains why. Me, too. If you know someone in the band find out for us.
After that diversion we headed into the hills. We were almost two hours behind schedule due to car trouble. So our adventure started late in the day. Our group consisted of five students, two teachers, and the Gypsy Carpenters. Gerardo Marron was our amazing guide. He was very skilled and a great instructor. He never laughed at our struggles. My loss of vision has undermined my confidence. I’m trying to power through but there’s a lot of awkward work as I try to see fine details through binoculars. I felt like an idiot most of the day. We spent hours on our feet looking at bugs and spiders and lizards and birds. The class was still going at 7:20 PM when Burt and I headed home to feed the dogs. We’d hoped to spend the night and camp with everyone but we could not find dog care. If you wanna make some money build a kennel in Todos Santos. Today I am so tired I think the dogs saved us from looking really, really old. I’m not sure I could have stayed up half the night looking for bats and owls and then started all over again the next morning.
You can see why I’m whining below. Aside from the glorious bruise on my upper thigh all is well. We saw the green flash last night from cliffs above the boundless Pacific. On our way to the perch there was a spider in the wind and a fruiting cactus wedged in a crack of rock.
We’re getting into the swing of our normal routine. I’ve returned to Spanish classes and yoga. Burt has been out surfing. We’ve played Bridge. Team Mittelstadt tied for first place yesterday. My dad will be here in about 10 days. Tennis will resume then or sooner. We’re meeting with the neighborhood kids in a week for the first class of the season. Tomorrow we’re off on a birding expedition with the UABCS (Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur) ornithology students.